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Committed: Why Ancient Mythology Breaks in Contemporary Comics

Adapting ancient parables and mythology is a large part of current comic book lore, as writers seek to imbue their creations with weight by borrowing from more established folklore. But in doing so without context, we’re ignoring the reasons why these stories worked so well, and what they would have meant in their original eras.

My friend Tara, an anthropologist and archeologist living in Britain, told me yesterday that she was disappointed by the two dimensional depiction of Loki in the movie version of Thor. Initially I was surprised, since I didn’t see him that way, but then I remembered that I was superimposing my own knowledge of Loki in comic books onto the film. Because of the odd range of Loki stories that I’ve read, I’ve managed to enjoy fairly diverse depictions of him. He’s quite well represented in non-cape books like Sandman or Lucifer, as well as more directly in mini-series’, Avengers books, and naturally in Thor’s own comic books. I’ve always read him as a conflicted character at best, not outright bad and certainly someone who, while selfish, has done some ostensibly positive works at some vague point in the past.

In the movie, while he was a disgruntled and out of place child, his character and response to the revelations about his past depicted him as an all round bad egg, with no redeeming qualities within our own moral codes. While it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a fun, action movie, I can definitely see how it was limited use of a rich character (although that could be said about any superhero or myth-based movie these days, but that’s a different article and I’m not writing it today.)

For a moment let’s put aside the fact that blockbuster movies are presenting simplified versions of already basic characters from mainstream comic books (a depressing thought), but Tara gave me some food for thought about mythology. She explained that originally, when these myths and stories were written, people had very different values from the ones we have now, so while the character of Loki was always a manipulative figure, this wasn’t considered an entirely bad thing. If we look back at various ancient mythical figures both in Norse mythology and otherwise, even the heroes were comfortable using whatever lies necessary to attain their goals, including lying and trickery. While we demonize Loki for this now, in the past he was a more ambiguous character, and these current flaws weren’t always seen as such. Heroes of mythology, like Odysseus for example, also lied and manipulated others to get their way, dishonesty and manipulation was not enough to class someone as “evil” in the way that it is now. In fact, using these ancient characters in current stories, then presenting them through the warped lens of our values creates rather dull ideas and ignores much of the richness which made them so exciting in the past.

I asked Tara about the current treatment of Wonder Woman, now that a version of the Amazon mythology is being incorporated into this current iteration of the comic book. I explained that while proponents of the rapist Amazon behavior have said it is true to the original mythos, detractors are disappointed by this rapey / slavey behavior from former feminist icons. As an anthropologist, Tara had another take on the subject. Apparently, back when stories of a race of Amazon warrior women was current, the idea that these warriors would be slavers or rapists wasn’t frowned upon because this was how all warriors behaved, it was part the job, i.e. “We won, we get to rape your women and sell your menfolk – wooohooo!” The reason the Amazon rapist / slavers was such a disturbing story at the time, wasn’t what they did, but that they were _women_ doing it to men, turning the tables on them, so to speak. The idea that warrior men could be raped and forced to experience the horrors they regularly inflicted on their female foes was the frightening part of the myth at that time. Therefore, if we follow this logic, the problem isn’t that we’re using the original mythology in the current stories, the problem is that we aren’t amending it to work with our current moral standards. Logically, If we want to present men with a terrifying turnabout story of this type, we need to write tales of men who’re paid pennies on the dollar, expected to wear uncomfortable shoes every day, and judged purely on their appearance, while being denied health insurance coverage for birth control (scary!)

Joking aside, while the above idea might seem like a very euthanized version of the original mythology, these are the types of problems we encounter when we utilize early mythology in todays world, instead of creating new situations which fit more logically into the confines of current standards of behavior. Using the excuse that these are old stories we’re repurposing and so their behavior is dictated is a cop out, because when they were written, we weren’t the same people. We must acknowledge our own changes in writing our stories.

Whenever something like this comes up, I’m reminded of the scientist who witnessed a homosexual, necrophiliac, duck rape. (Bear with me, the connection will become apparent in a moment.) You see, it turns out that these ducks were having a flight fight, which may culminate with the dominant duck having sex with the his vanquished opponent, no matter what gender or what condition he is in (i.e. alive or dead!) Now if we look at this by our own moral standards, we’re horrified at this illegal behavior. The duck is a necrophiliac, homosexual rapist! But within his own society, the duck is behaving perfectly rationally. We do not try to retell this story by replacing the duck with a human, because it would make no sense. Similarly, we should not try to rehash ancient stories as if they are about modern people, because they won’t make any sense. Our stories and our histories are nothing without context, and we do them a disservice by presenting them as such. As Tara said to me; Let’s just hope the Norse gods aren’t real, otherwise they’re going to be very angry.

44 Comments

Those are all great points. I’m a big mythology nerd, so I love to read stuff like this. And it’s absolutely true, one thing that struck me with the whole Wonder Woman “these Gods are selfish, so it’s a horror book” thing was that, in the time those stories were made, there was no horror to it. To people at that time, if you were the most powerful people in the world, OF COURSE you were a rapist/murder/manipulator. Why wouldn’t you be? That was what they saw powerful people do.

The sailors in Wonder Woman # 7 were not raped. Go back and re-read the book. Look at the images on the panels. Those sailors are not fighting back. Rape is when one person physically forces themselves on another person without the victims conscious consent. Those men may have been sexually coerced, which is immoral in my opinion, but they were not the victims of rape. That is something entirely different.

Do the new Amazons murder and lie to others? Yes. Are they rapists? No.

As far as this article goes. I disagree with it. Greed, power, control, sex, violence, despair, etc. are all just as relate-able themes today as they were four thousand or more years ago. Just because we would like to believe that modern human behavior is better or “evolved” does not make it so.

Interestingly, I think if we’re to carry the “take the old stories and adapt them to present morality” argument to its logical conclusion, we see that that’s just what WMM was doing in the original Wonder Woman stories.

A strong (and possibly bisexual and polyamorous) woman tying men up and dominating them is probably as terrifying an idea for 1940’s moral crusaders as slaver/rapist women would have been for the Ancient Greeks.

@Travis: You’re seriously making the argument that it’s only rape if the victim physically fights back?

I think he’s making the argument that it’s only rape if the victim doesn’t want it. Nothing about those men being used for sex suggested they didn’t. Everything seemed hunky dory until the swords came out and the bodies went overboard…

blame the Christians for today’s warped depiction of Loki. He was co-opted as a stand-in for Satan/Lucifer/the Devil by the Church when they were force-converting the so-called pagan peoples of northern Europe. Baldur got conflated into Jesus as well.

Actually I’d blame Americans for Loki…who tend to have a bit black-and-white approach to morality and are very much in love with their idealized heroes who are just so much better than anyone, and thus have trouble adapting the mythologies where “heroes” as a rule behave in questionable manner and “villains” are often just minding their own business.
Loki in Sandman makes much more sense, and Loki in Valhalla (by Danish Peter Madsen) is even better. Generally any connections between Marvel’s Thor and real Norse mythologies are highly dubious regarding all characters and not just Loki, those are names and couple of broad concepts thrown in Super Boy Scout mold.
Marvel’s Hercules on the other hand seems to get things closer to original (the character should be a bit of an a******e).

“Similarly, we should not try to rehash ancient stories as if they are about modern people, because they won’t make any sense. Our stories and our histories are nothing without context, and when we do them a disservice by presenting them as such.”

Well, that second sentence is all kinds of awkward. And also, demonstrably fallacious. It is the truth conveyed in these ancient stories that TRANSCENDS the original context. See Orson Welles’ so-called “Voodoo ‘Macbeth'” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” or Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III” or Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” or the recent BBC/PBS “Hamlet” or the more recent “Coriolanus” set in the modern Balkans or hundreds of other successful examples of re-contextualized ancient stories.

But I appreciate the questions raised by Ms. Harris. It can get even more murky if one factors in theories like the one put forth by Julian Jaynes that the ancients were operating on a completely different type of mindset (see http://www.julianjaynes.org/overview.php). If they were, in fact, operating in a “bicameral” way how do we square that context with our own modern consciousness.

But answers to these questions are practically unknowable. All we have are the stories. And we all see them through our own prisms. Ms. Harris’ friend Tara has trouble with Marvel’s Loki because she has experienced a different Loki in her studies. A kid coming to the mythological Loki from the Marvel Loki- which I think, in retrospect, I did, when I was a kid- might have a little trouble with getting a handle on the archaeological/mythological Loki.

It is on questions like these that PhD dissertations are born!

@yo go re, thank you for clarifying my position. Someone can be knocked out or drugged and be raped. Someone could be held under duress and be raped (i.e. gunpoint, knifepoint, etc.). Someone could be blackmailed into performing sexual acts to avoid exposure of personal secrets/details, and even that would be closer to rape than what happened in Wonder Woman #7.

Dear Internet,

Please clarify “rape” for me.

Thank you.

I think it’s fun to try to tell stories of the gods in a modern context. I was drawn to this article because I’ve done just that myself. But these characters in a modern context would act differently, no?

You can read some of my Panthea Obscura free if you’re curious. The old gods show up in Vermont. “Two gods walk into a bar…” http://pantheaobscura.com

While the points raised in the article are valid, mythology was and is constantly reinterpreted (much like superhero comics) and there is no reason not to adapt these tales to a modern audience, just look at any major work from classical times, from Homer to Danté (for instance).

Mythological characters don’t have consistent personalities or motivations. They never have. They were always the product of collective story telling. You can like certain versions better than others, but Marvel’s Loki is every bit the “real” Loki as the one from the Norse Building of the Wall Myth or the Thor movie or whatever other story you pick.

It might be a good point of comparison to describe Loki as a Trickster figure like Coyote (both the Coyote of myth and the Steve Englehart character) or even better, Bugs Bunny — who like Loki wouldn’t hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, and wear dresses to trick his foes and deflate the pretensions of the powerful. Authority-based religions and cultures will naturally vilify the anti-authoritarian, anti-pomposity Trickster, but they often take the role of the people’s champion against the cruel whims of the Gods.

Necrophiliac rape of a male duck? Isn’t that a fair description of Marvel’s policy towards Howard the Duck and Steve Gerber?

I have to say I never heard the Amazons being described as “feminist icons” before this rapey slave thing came up in the current run.

Even assuming that they haven’t being prescribed this role retroactively as some sort of statement against Azzarello’s run, they make pretty problematic feminist icons in both their origin mythological and post-marston form.

I’m glad I’m not a dead duck.

I love how the bigoted author implies homosexuality is something as bad as rape. And the article as a whole is a big “duh”

Any god who wears the ridiculous costume they designed for the movie Loki loses all right to be taken seriously

How does one define the “original” morality of a myth?

The corpus of texts that make up any given mythology are a hodge-podge of sources composed by different authors, in different cultures, across different centuries ALL OF WHOM HAD DIFFERENT VALUES . One of the fundamental aspects of mythology is that is changes to meet the needs of the people who use it. Look at how the interpretation and characterization of the stories in the bible has changed in the last 2,000 years (and this with a text that is largely fixed). Kirby’s Loki is every bit as valid as Wagner’s, the Brother’s Grimm as correct as Sturlusson.

The current Wonder Woman continuity is the worst kind of mythological correctness and one of the greatest misuses of myth since The Passion of the Christ. Here we have an author needlessly picking and choosing aspects of a largely misogynistic mythology while ignoring others (note how many Amazons have cut off one of their breasts in the latest rendition) and in the process destroying something that was quite apropos to the twenty first century and fulfilled an important function in modern culture.

It is very, very common that myths and legends are revised and re-told for different audiences, and I don’t see it as a problem at all. Look at all the versions of the Arthur stories. “Morte D’Arthur” is very different than “The Once and Future King” which is very different than the many movie versions, book versions, comic book versions, etc. Most villains can be as simple or as complex as may be needed for the story.

It has been happening as long as there has been literature. One of the earliest known stories in English (well, actually Middle English) is “Gawain and the Green Knight,” which was a “spin off” of the Arthur legends. Authors take well known characters and revise them to tell a story which appeals to their current audience, which also introduces those character to a whole new audience.

How many of the kids (and young adults) watching these Marvel movies knew anything about Norse Mythology? And how many get to learn more about Norse Mythology thanks to the introduction from these stories? Percy Jackson and the Titan movies have done the same thing for Greek mythology.

@Local Man said:

“Most villains can be as simple or as complex as may be needed for the story”

Well, I’m above the age of 12, so I like all my characters not to be flat, cardboard cut-outs

To echo what many others have said, myth was made to be reinvented and has always been a mish mash of various peoples/era’s interpretations of the figures within it.

As a young dude, I’ve been denied health insurance I needed before (for hearing aids), been an underpaid janitor, and been judged based on my appearance. Being raped sounds infinitely scarier.

“For a moment let’s put aside the fact that blockbuster movies are presenting simplified versions of already basic characters from mainstream comic books”

Yeah…X-men, Batman, Spider-man, Iron-man….really basic characters.

Go watch Disney’s cartoon movie Hercules and you will see how bad it can be…

@sarlacc said, “Well, I’m above the age of 12, so I like all my characters not to be flat, cardboard cut-outs”

It really depends upon the story. In some cases, the focus of the story may be the journey of the main character or the relationship between two or more characters. A two-dimensional villain may be best, as a more complex villain would draw attention away from the main focus. This is especially true in a comedy, where the stereotyped nature of the villain may be part of the comedy. In a football movie, the opposing team doesn’t need a lot of “depth of character.” All you need to know is that they want to win and will cheat to do it.

I have seen quite a few films where scenes which might “flesh out” the villain are cut because they don’t forward the story. I have also read quite a few novels which could have been better with a better editor . . .

..why cant we just look at folks like Stan Lee as simply exercising their artistic literary skills instead of all of the navel gazing to use ancient “mythology” wisely???

I mean I greatly appreciated this article/thread but it seems we are cutting straws when, with so much confusion in the world going on, we are now asked to call into question the use of “Thor” & “the amazons” as comic book characters vs their original mythology.

I mean when did comics all of a sudden have to follow a code of orthodoxy???

If you think western “misuse” of mythology is bad, simply from it deviating from the traditions, what the Japanese have done in manga and anime should have you screaming incoherently in a padded cell somewhere from having your fragile little mind warped.

Ah Megamisama (Oh My Goddess!) = The Norse Norns with some other stuff tossed in
Saint Seiya = (Greek gods and heroes)
Shurato (Hindu & Buddhist myth, the latter from the Buddha reforming the “demons” that the heroes take their “powers” from).
Fushigi Yuugi (Chinese myths)
Digimon (a mix of western and asian myths, with a heaping helping of the Lovecraftian Mythos tossed in because the writer was a big fan. Heck, one of the digimon from the last series that aired in the US was a beads-on-a-string looking creature that transformed into a Kabbalist symbol to attack and imprison foes!)

And the less said about the Dragonball series (The Monkey King), the better.

It’s all about the defense of this that or the other author’s work. Azzarello penned a controversial WW story, and his defenders were quick to say that it was mythologically accurate. I beleive Ms Harris is simply stating that this “accuracy,” is far more nuanced than some may believe and reflects the values of the time.

I think you can make the argument that none of that really matters, and story should be judged on its own merit. Ultimately where the author drew their inspiration is quite secondary to how the story reads in my opinion. Simply pointing to the alleged source as a defense for a plot point that doesn’t work is a little silly.

@Sean

I agree. Just judge the work on its own merit. And Azzarello’s Wonder Woman has been bad

(picture the sound of a bleating sheep: baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad)

“The sailors in Wonder Woman # 7 were not raped. Go back and re-read the book. Look at the images on the panels. Those sailors are not fighting back. Rape is when one person physically forces themselves on another person without the victims conscious consent. Those men may have been sexually coerced, which is immoral in my opinion, but they were not the victims of rape. That is something entirely different.”

The US Justice Department disagrees with you:

http://articles.cnn.com/2012-01-06/justice/justice_rape-definition-revised_1_definition-oral-penetration-sexual-abuse?_s=PM:JUSTICE

“Mythological characters don’t have consistent personalities or motivations. They never have. They were always the product of collective story telling. You can like certain versions better than others…]”

See? Just like Wonder Woman. Or any DC comics character, for that matter. Not saying that this is necessarily a good thing.

Well this certainly is a perspective!

An interesting one? Nope.

But by gosh it sure is a perspective!

Really, if super hero comics aren’t modern mythology, what is?

Simplified morality plays, characters that represent human characteristics instead of actual, complex human motivation and behavior, pure heroic inspiration, lots of colorful spandex….well, it’s not a perfect analogy.

I can’t say much about the Norse mythology, but in terms of the mythology in Wonder Woman, you run into many more problems.

If you go back to the original stories from the Homeric works, yes, lying and trickery weren’t seen as such huge negatives. However, the problem with these Greek myths is they were co-opted by the Roman civilization, which had values in many ways closer to ours. Read Ovid, and you’ll see the gods as sex-driven, egomanical monsters in most cases (yes, I understand he was writing largely for humor and subversion). But, then read Virgil’s Aeneid, and you’ll see that honesty (veritas) and strength (fortis) were far more important values.

Myths are and were organic stories that changed according to the audience to which they were being told. This is an attribute of the oral tradition from which these stories are derived. Characters would increase in popularity and then fall back again. If anything the versions of the characters in these stories are closer to the earliest oral tradition from which they come: adapting to and reflecting the culture (and its values) of the audience.

So, is Odysseus a clever, brilliant warrior and tactician? Or, is Ulysses a lying, cheating, thieving scoundrel?

It’s a bigger problem how they constantly recycle the same scene in every issue of Wonder Woman: “Duuuuh, I didn’t know they did that” says Diana, making her seem dumber with each “shocking revelation.” And why do they ignore the fact that Hera is sister to all the gods vying for her hand. You’d think at least Zola would be cracking jokes about it.

Googam son of Goom

April 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm

The context of stories changes over time. The Loki of Marvel comics is not the Loki of ancient times or even of the Thor movie. People tell stories. Stories are inventions whether based on real people. myths or characters made up on the spot. The movie Thor alludes to some ancient idea and is nothing like it but that’s not really a problem because you or I can tell our own story about Thor. In fact the secret is that there is no Thor or Loki and never was.

Why compare? The comics are not direct translations nor relative recreations. It’s just as silly to compare ancient myths with their translation to film.

comics as a medium is popcorn literature (entertainment), so any depictions and or tranlations of the classics is doomed to either look cheap and or fail.

The idea that warrior men could be raped and forced to experience the horrors they regularly inflicted on their female foes was the frightening part of the myth at that time. Therefore, if we follow this logic, the problem isn’t that we’re using the original mythology in the current stories, the problem is that we aren’t amending it to work with our current moral standards

Sonia:

Mass rape in war time is a real phenomenon in the modern era. It is well documented that Serbian forces (both regular, and irregular) used rape as an instrument of war in both the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War during the 1990s. In fact it is well established that Serbian forces operated rape-camps and numerous perpetrators were later convicted for these crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Mass rape was also used as a weapon against the Tutsi people during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

There have also been reports of rape being used as a weapon by Sri Lankan security forces during their civil war.

Mass rape continues to be reported as a war time activity into the 21st century as well. It may be something that goes against our commonly held American values (and even then let’s not forget that sexual humiliation of prisoners was documented in Abu Ghraib) but it continues to be a reality in modern warfare.

OK, my eyesight is tired today, so I’m not going to read all 40 comments above now. If I repeat something already pointed out then excuse me.

First, I definitely agree that the morality of ancient cultures was different from what it is today, and that people should stop judging old tales based on our modern viewpoints (in particular, those of The Bible.)

By that same token, modern comics -or at least, superhero comics- ARE about our modern morality. We just can’t have characters presented in the ways they were in those old stories; it would be at the least contradictive and at most, offensive.

More importantly, the problem with comics such as Thor and Wonder Woman is that they *already* have their own version of the myths -which have clearly, even canonically, been established as being different from the original myths, for a long, long time. The Amazons of Wonder Woman were an idealized society of Warrior-Philosophers because that’s the message her creator wanted to spread about women’s potential; they make Wonder Woman who she is, and the people who keep reinventing them to make them “correct” according to mythology are just further damaging the character. Similarly, Marvel’s Thor was never meant to be 100% correct, as he doesn’t even have red hair and a beard! If anything, the inspiration was more Shakespeare’s works (what with the type of English they spoke, and the kind of villain they made Loki into.) Marvel even eventually revealed that the current Thor ISN’T the original (Ragnarok has already happened, and the current Asgardians are reincarnations, making BOTH versions true!)

So personally, I believe that IF you’re going to use mythology in a superhero comic, then yes, I’d prefer it to be a ‘sanitized’ version. Now, other genres- fantasy, horror etc. can use the more “correct” version if they want.

(And I put “correct” in quotes because, what many people forget, is that most myths, having started as oral traditions, have more than one version to begin with. Continuity isn’t just a modern storytelling problem. ;) )

On a tangential but related note, there’s something I wondered about while watching the Thor movie: at one point they look in a book on Norse mythology (if memory serves it was used by the older scientist to explain who Thor was to Jane Foster). This seems to imply that either (1) Norse mythology books in the world of the movie only describe Loki as a friend of Thor and don’t mention his heel turn (granted, it hasn’t happened yet in the reality of the movie, but Loki’s villainous side factors into the Ragnarok myth, and end-of-the-world myths are always accounts of things that haven’t happened yet or that happen repeatedly in an eternal cycle) or (2) if Thor had bothered to flip around a bit in that book, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.

I know this isn’t about specifics, but there actually is a familiar morality built into many of the myths cited. The ultimate cause of Ragnarok is that the Asgardian gods keep breaking their promises and violating the rules of hospitality. Odysseus’ best chance of getting home on a reasonable schedule is scuppered when his crew don’t trust that he, as a tricky fellow, isn’t keeping treasure from them, and thus open the Bag of Winds. Deceit and unreliability are regularly punished in myth, and for obvious reason.

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